Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Last Look at Paris -- Palaces

We've been home for almost a week, but Paris still lingers in the mind; especially two palaces we visited: the Louvre and Fontainebleau Chateau. (Fontainebleau is on the left.)

I'd always thought of the Louvre as an art museum -- which it is, and has been, since 1793. But first, it was a palace. And if you look at the enormity of the complex of buildings from across the river, you can see it was a big one. The Louvre is so big, that you can't possibly explore it in one day. Even a week wouldn't be long enough. We went for as much art as we could absorb in one visit. The rooms of paintings and statues were endless. We contented ourselves with seeing lots of Corot's paintings (we've always admired him), some El Grecos and Goyas, Leonardo Da Vinci, of course. Which brings me to the Mona Lisa. It's truly a beautiful and mysterious painting. But some of his other portraits were beautiful and mysterious too. It's interesting how attention will focus on one example of a painter's remarkable art and overshadow all others.

When we got to the statues of antiquity, the marble figures were truly arresting. To think of something sculpted so long ago: figures from every walk of life in olden times, looking so lifelike despite their stone pallor. The Winged Victory, and the Venus de Milo each had their own pride of place, and well they should. Their very postures abound with "story". Who were the models? (Which brings up a bonus from this trip with practical value for me: I can use some of those statue pictures to practice figure drawing.)

The next day we went to Fontainebleau, taking the metro to Gare de Lyon, then the train to the village, about 35 miles from the heart of Paris. My goal for this trip was to see the Fontainebleau Forest, which figures in four of my stories. I wanted to see if I got the ambience and setting right. (I did.) We spent the whole day in Fontainebleau, and decided to take a tour of the castle at its center. First we ate lunch at a good Indian restaurant. Then we walked around the grounds, which went on and on: Gardens , courtyards, parks, small man-made lakes, and a canal, fringed by the forest (which originally was the royal hunting preserve).

Finally we entered the palace -- a palace that makes the Louvre seem small by comparison. Room after room, incredibly decorated, painted, gilded, added to and further embellished, as various kings had their day, including Napoleon when he was emperor. It's a giddy feeling, standing in the living quarters of those who have made history, trying to imagine their lives. Even for those who lived there, ruling or simply taking care of the rulers, I could imagine getting lost on a regular basis. Given the fact that Palace of Versailles is supposed to be bigger and more opulent, and that numerous other palaces abound throughout France, you can understand the French Revolution.

It was a beautiful tour, though, crammed with facts and anecdotes (we had those little wands). We were both glad we went. However, at closing time we almost got locked in because I was still in the chapel, listening to a chamber orchestra practice for some concert. Great accoustics, so you can imagine the size of the chapel.

The next time I read a historical novel based in France, I'll surely have a new appreciation for its setting.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Music in the Metro and the Mystery of Rush Hours

I am used to seeing down and out people in Sacramento trying to panhandle a living on street corners, and Paris had its share of them. But there were also the street musicians who had found they could pick up coins by placing themselves in key locations in the Metro system. (Well, everywhere, really, as in the case of this couple near Montmarte).

One morning we were treated to the haunting violin theme of Albinoni's Adagio, played by a young woman on one of the platforms. Another day, while climbing stairs, we heard the beautiful strains of Bach's Fugue in D Minor echoing through the tunnels and stairwells, sounding like a marvellous pipe organ. To our surprise, when we came upon the young musician, he was playing it on his accordion.

One evening when we were too tired to walk home, we took the metro and two men got on, one with a clarinet, the other with a saxaphone. Suddenly they began playing a jazzy version of Blue Moon, followed by When the Saints Came Marching In, and finally the Hora. Then they walked the aisles, hats out, collected their coins, and got off at the next stop.

Not every musician was so accomplished, I have to say. One afternoon a man got on with his guitar and proceeded to sing-shout-yell in my ear as I hugged my pole, wishing he'd go away. (It was a very crowded train.)

Which brings me to the mystery of rush hours on the Metro: Depending on what time of morning we rode to a museum, the train was always nearly empty: 9:00 a.m., not crowded. 9:30 a.m., not crowded. 10:00, 11:00; not crowded. But, whenever we took an afteroon train home from our ventures, we found ourselves jammed in like sardines. 5:30 or 6:00 p.m., 7:30 or 8:00 p.m., we had to struggle to get on and struggle to get off.

Where did everyone come from on these return trips? WERE they return trips? I'm still pondering this mystery.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Random Thoughts and Some Cautions

We're home again, but I'm still somewhat in Paris. After such immersion for a week, the city still echoes and echoes: Memories of paintings, sculptures, historic buildings, monuments to literary and political figures; outside tables at crowded cafes, book stalls bordering the quay, barges tied up along the banks of the Seine.... It's all there, swirling in my thoughts.

I forgot to mention that Thursday, our last gadabout day, we had a glass of wine at the Deux Magots. The cafe was one of Hemingway's haunts, at the edge of a triangle called Place Sartre-Beauvoir, and across from Le Flore, another literary/artistic hang-out. We stopped by to break the long and hot walk back from Musee d'Orsay through a street lined with art galleries. (Paris has entered its sizzling stage of summer, although the same night there was a loud, intense thunderstorm that rattled our windows before calming down.)

Despite my love of Paris, I think I should mention a few cautionary points for visitors to Paris.

1. You really DO have to beware of pickpockets. Everyone told us this, and we were very careful, but even then, someone managed to pickpocket Rajan near where we stopped for lunch. They probably thought they were getting his wallet, but it was his blackberry, and, thanks to the marvel of cyberspace, Rajan was able to email ATT an hour later and have the account suspended.

2. The museum pass, which sounds so good, is a little tricky. If you like to see a lot of places briefly, a two-day pass, or even a four-day pass is a good buy. If you're like us, and linger over paintings, statues, explanatory plaques, and like to take your time savoring the experience, you're better off buying separate tickets at each museum. Many things worth seeing are free, anyway. And two locations covered by our pass that we had planned to see (the Trocadero Aquarium and the Picasso Museum) were closed for renovation.

3. It's good to get batches of Metro tickets, which come in sets of ten. But for some reason, 6 of the first set we bought didn't work in the machines and had to be re-issued each time at the counter. This was perhaps the only place that I saw Parisians get frosty and unfriendly. Several other tourists were having the same problems with their tickets, and it did not bring out the best in the people behind the counter.

That said, however, generally we found most Parisians gracious and warm. And this was one of the best vacations of my life.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Last Day in Paris, but Not the Last Word

Thursday Evening:

We return to Sacramento tomorrow, which means we will leave Paris on Friday, and after hours and hours of travel, will arrive home the same day, thanks to the wonder of time zones.

Today we returned to the Musee d'Orsay and hung out there for a good five and a half hours. We found a whole wing of pictures we had missed last Saturday. Today we took pictures of our favorites. We have a print at home of the one displayed here. It was exciting to see the original, needless to say, and revisiting the Musee was great way to finish a wonderful week.

I have yet to blog about our trip to the Louevre on Sunday or our trip to Fontainebleau on Monday. That will just have to wait until we get back, along with numerous observations about aspects of life in Paris.

Suffice it to say that we have had a wonderful time, and I would recommend renting an apartment over a hotel room any time. Our apartment was well-stocked, and the manager, Victoria, was always helpful. I'll post links, etc. on return home.

One other observation is that the book, French Women Don't Get Fat, is quite accurate. For real: French women are consistently thin! It's amazing. I suspect it has something to do with climbing stairs everywhere, but more thoughts on that on another day.

Till then, Au revoir, Paris and Hello, Cezar (our loveable mutt). Sacramento, here we come.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

From the Jardin des Plantes to Rodin's Sculpture Gardens

Yesterday morning we returned to the Jardin des Plantes so I could gather more details for a story that takes place in its zoo. It's been awhile since we've been to a zoo. We enjoyed wandering around looking at wallabees, black swans, orangatangs, eagle owls, yaks, and some giant African tortoises that looked at first like huge sculptures. The Rotunda especially interested me, since that is where the elephants in my story lived, back in 1870, before the Siege. The Rotunda is closed right now for rennovation, and there don't seem to be any elephants at the zoo at the moment. But Rajan took lots of pictures for me (I left my camera in the apartment). I have a pretty good idea what the zoo would have looked like to my characters.

Then we walked back to Rue Mouffetard to the little triangle where the musicians played the night before and had a light lunch, and stopped by the apartment to pick up my camera before heading out for the Rodin Museum.

The Rodin Museum is a wonder! It's housed in what used to be an old hotel where Rodin rented four rooms and lived for the last nine years of his life. (The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke,rented one room, which suggests something about the poet's relative livelihood.) Now the whole two-story building is a museum containing Rodin's innumerable and wonderful sculptures, as well as his art collections which, I was happy to see, included some of the Impressionists' works.

We must have spent about three and half hours walking through every room in the building and making the rounds of the garden areas. These are truly sculpture gardens: bronze figures everywhere, most of them portraying characters from Dante's Inferno. One piece was the famous "The Thinker", which is supposed to be Dante himself. We took picture after picture. Such amazing works of art: so lifelike in their postures; so emotional in their expressions. This is probably one of the best art experiences of my life.

After that, we walked home. A long walk, but enjoyable.We broke it at one point to have a glass of wine and talk about what we had seen. But, the day's art treats weren't over.

In the evening, one of my favorite operas, La Traviata was shown on TV. It was a filmed live performance, with Patrice Ciofi as Violetta and Vitorio Grigolo as Alfredo. I may have their names misspelled, because the credits were flashed on and off so quickly. Both had luscious voices and were good actors who made you enter the story and believe it. When it was time for curtain calls, the audience went wild with their applause. Once again, a French ending to a fabulous day: The opera was sung in Italian, but the subtitles were in French!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bastille Day

Time is flying, we've been on the go, and I haven't been able to post everyday. I'll start with yesterday, which was Bastille Day, and see how far I can work backwards.

We were curious to see how Bastille Day would be celebrated, but Paris is so full of tourists it was like other days, except for certain touches: Flags flying in greater number on every building (calling to mind a wonderful painting by Monet); men dressed like soldiers of yesteryear; planes flying in formation; a cavalcade of police cars with their sirens going. We go to bed at 10:30 p.m., when it is still quite light at this time of year, so if there were fireworks, we didn't see them. And we missed any parades, as we were busy sightseeing.

In the morning, we walked over to Rue Mouffetard to the open air market, which was a little smaller due to the holiday, but still lots of fruit and vegetable stalls were set up, as well as fish markets and coffee stalls.

Next,we went to Montmartre, a trip involving a couple of transfers on the Metro. We walked up the steps to ground level -- about six flights in a stairwell that has been beautifully painted with murals of the City. After wandering the streets around the base, we went on up to the top to see Sacre Coeur. This remarkable cathedral was built a few years after the Siege of Paris to memorialize the dead and to give thanks for Paris' survival of the war. Inside is a huge, wonderful mosaic of Christ, and many smaller mosaics in the side chapels. We didn't go up to the dome or down to the crypt, but were still able to catch a panoramic view of Paris.

After lunch, we took the metro to the Arc de Triomphe. Previously we had gone to the top -- another site for views of the city. This time, we enjoyed taking pictures of the remarkable sculptures on the arches and watching the crowds. Then we walked along the Champs Elysee until we came to the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais. (There seem to be palaces everywhere in Paris!) These were built for Exhibition in 1900 and are really beautiful buildings, loaded with sculptures and domes and pillars. Then we crossed the Pont Alexandre III, (The Alexander III Bridge)to get to the Left Bank and come home. This bridge is another dazzler. Sculptures all over it, and flanking it, and the sculptures are gilded. (I'll try to post a picture of it when we get back to Sacramento.)

We were going to try to walk home, but after a few tired minutes, we decided to take the Metro and got on at the stop near the Assemblee Nationale (which was flying with flags). (A side note here: French flags fluttering in the breeze in clusters, each with three simple three stripes, red-white-and blue, are truly picturesque.)

When we got out at our stop, Jussieu, we topped off the day with an evening walk to Rue Mouffetard, to have a glass of wine at one of the many outdoor cafes. We were pleasantly surprised by a group of musicians on a small stage, playing and singing old time French songs, Maurice Chevalier-style. The crowd sang along, and some even got up and danced. One song was "La Vie en Rose", accompanied by accordion. Truly a French ending to a very French day.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Magic of Art

Yesterday we went to the Musee d'Orsay. It was our first art museum visit so far. (The previous day we went to several cathedrals.) The Musee d'Orsay is full of every kind of art: sculptures, paintings, decorative arts, architecture, etc., but we were there for the paintings. (And, since the restaurant has these beautiful paintings for their decor, you can imagine what the actual art was like.)

At home, whenever I get calendars, I usually look for one with paintings, and usually by one of the Impressionists. We also have a couple of framed posters of paintings by Van Gough and Monet. But nothing beats the original. D'Orsay has quite a collection of Impressionists, and the first thing that struck me was the size of the works. How did they paint on such a scale? These are scenes so vibrant and real, you feel like you could just walk into them, whether interiors or landscapes.

There's also a subtle aura emanating from an original that gets lost in the print. Don't get me wrong: I love the posters and prints that we have. But seeing the actual texture of the painting, the brushstrokes on the canvas, and realizing how the painter worked on a piece for weeks and months to get it right, lends a dimension to one's appreciation. Something almost mystical is communicated.

Today we are going to the Louvre. We passed by it on the walk home from d'Orsay last evening, and the enormity of the building is staggering to behold. I know we'll never make it through everything today, but I'm looking forward to whatever we can manage to see.

Meanwhile, one day I'm hoping to have time to talk about the bookshops and bakeries and markets that abound on every street, crowded in among the cafes and restaurants. Until then, Art calls....

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Paris, Paris

We're here!

We arrived yesterday and took a train from the airport, then connected to metro, and then it was only a short walk to the apartment we've rented on the Left Bank. It's a charming, small apartment, with arches and beams and throw rugs and alcoves -- and three flights up on a small, spiral staircase that will trim off any weight we gain on croissants and our favorite baguettes. We are in the center of a district that has wall-to-wall restaurants of every kind of food you can think of, as well as bakeries and produce markets.

Yesterday we shopped for the apartment. Tonight we'll cook. But last night we found a really good (and reasonably priced) vegetarian restaurant near Notre Dame. Le Grenier, ironically on the Rue de la Bucherie (Street of the Butcher).

Earlier in the day we went to the Jardin des Plantes, a place I want to return to. It's a place where the locals like to hang out with their families. So much to see: the zoo, the natural history museum, the hall of evolution. And so many garden areas, with some trees more than 150 years old. But my interest is in the history: Before the siege of Paris, two famous elephants, Castor and Pollux, were the big draw. And once upon a time, the famous Jumbo (of American legend)was housed here.

So far, the weather is perfect: a cool morning and evening; warm afternoon, but not hot.

Yesterday we mostly walked around. It's a walker's city: Streets at odd angles; beautiful old buildings with the wrought iron balconies and tile roofs; cafes, statues, fountains, and chapels everywhere; book stores and antique shops. And the lovely sound of French the way it should be spoken!

The pace of life is different here. On the streets, people walk quickly and in the shops their movements are quick and efficient, but everything also feels quite relaxed. It's a subtle thing, really, hard to explain, but you can feel it. Everyone we've met has also been helpful and friendly--and very patient with our poor French. Before we set off for dinner, we had a glass of wine at a small table in an open doorway and just watched life flowing and swirling by.

And then, jet lag struck, and after dinner, and the walk home, and three flights of stairs to mount, we slept like the dead.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


Rajan and I are leaving for Paris Wednesday, and, needless to say, I'm quite excited. We had air credit with US Air (a story too long to go into here) and suddenly realized we needed to use it fast! Seventeen years ago we went to Paris for five days and never got over it -- the French window where one could step onto a balcony over a street that bustled all night long; the crusty baguettes with coffee and hot milk at breakfast; and all the art museums! It's a thrill to be going back -- this time for eight days.

There are additional bonuses this time: My nephew who lives in France, just outside of Geneva, is coming to join us for a day. Four of the stories in my children's collection take place in or near Paris, (most of the details coming from research), and now I can get first hand information at the Fontainebleau Forest, the Jardin des Plantes, the Trocadero Aquarium, etc. We also found that renting an apartment is more economical than a hotel room, so we can cook our own dinners. Being vegetarian (although we do eat seafood), that will make meals easier, but friends are also giving us names of vegetarian restaurants that seem to have sprung up in recent years.

We are also trying to brush up our French -- although on our earlier trip we found the French people so helpful and friendly, despite the fact that we mangled their beautiful language.

We both love art, and especially we love the Impressionists. It felt like a spiritual feast before to go through Musee d'Orsay, the Louvre; to see Montmarte; and all the sidewalk artists and little galleries along the Seine. I will never forget, too, how uplifting it felt just to stand inside Notre Dame Cathedral. I can't wait to see it all again.

We are taking a computer, but I don't know if I'll have time to blog. If not, I'll certainly take copious notes and then blog on return. And who knows? I may even get a new story there.

Stay tuned.... (I won't even attempt that line in French!)